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Susan M. Heathfield

Do You Have a Hostile Work Environment?

By October 27, 2013

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Is your work environment hostile? Probably not, but it could be.

Employees throughout my career, and in various companies, have complained to me about their hostile work environment. And, yes, some of them have had pretty bad work environments. They claim bad bosses, dysfunctional, back-biting coworkers, and management decisions they abhor.

But, hostile? Not really. When I studied what comprised a hostile work environment, it had a lot to do with potential discrimination. Not a lot to do with people and issues that ticked me or you off. Too bad, in some ways, since I wish a productive, happy work environment for everyone.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.

Until people stop using work to play out their control issues and their domination fantasies, their dysfunctional adolescences, and their unhappy home lives, work for many will be a struggle. When people at work start talking to each other like adult co-equals, perhaps environments will change. I can only hope, but, in the meantime, I have lots of business.

I consult, and always have, on common sense solutions and systems - creating systems that give people goals, personal and career development, feedback and recognition; protect the employer and his interests; and create an employee-oriented, empowering environment, supportive of people and their dreams. I wish this for every employee.

But, a hostile work environment presents these parameters. Does your workplace actually qualify as a hostile work environment - or are you a victim of wishful thinking? If so, there are other approaches you can pursue - like job searching.

Image Copyright Alan Crawford

May 31, 2011 at 8:58 am
(1) Barbara says:

NY State has had a bill in the works for many years now regarding this issue. Currently, as you know, a ‘hostile environment” requires discrimination of a protected class. This leaves little recourse for those of us who have worked in hostile environment where the boss knows how to walk that fine line. I spent six years in an environment where it was not uncommon to see the boss punch a hole in the wall out of anger, throw things and threaten people over the paging system. An environment so bad he told me once he would hit people if he could get away with it. He knew though where to stop….he would call his sales people stupid, not stupid broads. Then he would apologize. It was like being in an abusive marriage. I don”t know how prevalent this type of work environment is in the U.S, I’ve only encountered it once. That was enough for me. As an HR manager I am on the fence about the NY State bill. Having experienced a hostile environment I understand there may be a need, on the other hand I envision a feeding frenzy of lawyers every time an employer says boo.

September 15, 2011 at 3:20 am
(2) Dee says:

Wow! recently my boss tore up one of my contracts crunched it in a ball and hurled it across thier desk at me
I do consider this hostile but more disrespectful.
I have worked all of my life and within the past 6 years have had three different bosses with the same personality.
I have never went to HR for anything but find myself considering it.
My boss is a fine liner, always apoliogize’s when no one is around but continues to do the same thing on a daily basis and to other co-workers as well.

June 21, 2011 at 8:49 am
(3) Maribel says:

Barbara- your comment was an eye-opener wow! Some of us have been very lucky because we haven’t endured such work relationships. However, sometimes these bosses are just overreacting to perhaps minor probs in their lives but i’m sure its just a stage and they will eventually get over it and get back on track. I hope this boss apologized? You just have to let those negative moments go by and give that boss a chance and i wouldn’t hold any of it against him as we all go thru such experiences at 1 point or another in everyones lives. Remember ppl can go from weird to normal within 45 min and everbody is guilty of such behaviors. We just have to think of all positives.

June 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm
(4) Bulldog says:

In general, a hostile work environment should not be tied *only* to the protected classes. I work in a hostile environment. Bullying is common. Yelling, intimidation is the norm. There have been a few violent/death threat incidents. And no, this is not a prison. It is local government. I repeatedly hear “there is nothing you can do to me – I am elected.” As a taxpayer, I am appalled. As an employee, I shake, I am physically ill, I watch others react the same way and not be able to work productively. Could I look for other work? Sure. But my tax dollars would still be supporting this behavior. I have to stay. Change has to happen.

June 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm
(5) Susan Heathfield says:


Just because a workplace hostility does not count as legally hostile, does not mean that it can’t be hostile, mean and ugly. Here are some of the steps I recommend:


If you follow all the links from the end of that article, you will find a lot more information.

Good luck.

February 15, 2013 at 9:38 am
(6) Chestney says:

Hi, I am a manager at a restaurant and I recently had an employee write a 2 page letter about me telling my GM that I “belittled” and “yelled” at her constantly when we worked together. She claimed that I made her cry on several occasions. I never knew these things were happening until I read the letter. I never yelled at her but yes, when I am doing your job while you’re texting, I am going to tell you to do it yourself if you have time to text. My GM told her she had to continue to work with me and I was okay with that because I didn’t think I treated anyone unfairly. Because she was told that, she did not show up for her shift the next day. I had decided to text her and apologize to her if she felt that I mistreated her. She sent a reply back being very rude stating she hopes, for the sake of anyone working under me, that I use this experience as a learning tool. I was a little frustrated by the message. Very unprofessionally I replied and told her she needs to check her web of lies because they are growing quickly. Could this be considered harassment? She said that she was in the process of filing a workplace harassment lawsuit against me and the company when I sent that message. I fear I will lose my job and the company I work for will be out a lot of money because of this. I know replying the way I did was not the smartest idea but does that really qualify as work harassment?

February 23, 2013 at 6:57 pm
(7) Suffering daily says:

I have been called a liar and daily I am subjected to a supervisor watching my every move. He accuses me of wandering all over and not staying in my area. On Friday, he got so mad he threw parts on the floor in front of other people. It was over an issue that he said the previous day didn’t matter. After I punched out I went to the plant manager. I told her since the first time I talked to her about him, it just keeps getting worse. She wanted to know why I waited so long to come to her. I honestly didn’t think it would make a difference. The supervisor said, “I been this way all my life an I’m not gonna change now”. When he threw those parts, I got very afraid and my anxiety caused a panic attack. He knows I take medication for depression and panic disorder. I finally went to the plant manager because if they are going to fire me – do it. I told her I refuse to be intimidated by him anymore. She said he has issues with me staying in my area. I have to move about the shop, I work there. I get my work done and he never says anything about my quality or production. I love my job. I really would like to work here until I retire in 12 yrs. But the plant manager seems reluctant to follow through on complaints about this guy. I am not the first to go to her in the last year. I feel as if I have to walk on eggshells every day and no matter where I look he is watching me or here he comes again like I am a target. My ex-husband did this to systematically destroy my self esteem and stalk me. My supervisor points at what he wants me to do. If I have a question, he accuses me of giving him an attitude or tells me to calm down. I told the plant manager that the big joke now is that I am his new Annie. She worked here in the past and was singled out for this kind of abuse. She was in tears most of the time at the way he treated and talked to her. I do not want to lose my job. I am 56 and jobs are not easy to find at my age.

June 13, 2013 at 10:33 am
(8) Melanie says:

I worked at a place where my boss ( who is a woman) became way too personal. She talked about her sex life and was very slutty. She had many sexual relationships with other patients and caused trouble by leading them only to Anger them with her thoughtless emotionless heart. It got to the point where they would come in just to be the obsessed one she had to file a report on. But I think she likes the drama. Then she would talk about how she thinks she might have something from someone. How gross. Guys would come in to flirt and when I asked one to stop flirting with me because I was taken she took to his defense. She went too far and asked if she could sleep with my husband so I just quit. And now no one will hire me. She is a part of the chamber here so she’s well known. I don’t know what to do.

September 5, 2013 at 10:32 am
(9) Unhappy says:

GM, in June of this year I was forced to retire after 9 years of service to a Government office. I was yelled at and insulted daily. I went ahead and made a complaint with the EEOC here in my city, and just now got a letter stating that I have no case, due to the fact that it is not sexual, religion, or harassment. Now it has been 4 months and I have been to interviews but never make it to the second interview. I guess it is because of my age, I need to know if there is anything else I can do to put a case against this person and the office. Please, help.

October 28, 2013 at 7:41 am
(10) Lynn Ferguson-Pinet says:

Your clarification of legally hostile versus feeling hostile is very important and more to do with the best course of action. In either situation, for most people to recognize, it’s not good nor healthy to let things stay as status quo. We spend too much of our life at work that we take action to change our situation wither legally hostile or just feels hostile.


January 3, 2014 at 12:06 pm
(11) renee says:

I work in fast food. I used to be in charge of inventory and I was never trained. I was just told to put everything in the hand held and take the top three things that we were short on and leave a note. I was never shown which numbers to use. I lost that position because they said I didn’t understand numbers. Then I was moved to customer service where the general manager would not back me up and I am supposed to have time to do my stuff but I am never given that time where all the other managers are. When I don’t get everything done they say things about the quality of my work. I need time to go through the stuff I get on the truck to see when it goes up and I can leave a note to those in my department they are assigned to put it up, but I am always told that I have to find time. Also, we have to do diagnostics to see where the problems are. I have two people to do them with and several different areas to cover the others. Only have one person to do and one area to cover and they won’t give me the time to do it. They want me to squeeze out the time or fudge it. Is this a hostile work environment?

February 25, 2014 at 3:59 pm
(12) Velma says:

Susan, are you trying to say the hosile behavior has to be tolerated and the well behaved employees have to leave and found a new job. You must be out of your mind. This is why there is so much violence, because hostile behavior is not adressed and it is ignored. Not victimized employees have to look for a new job, but the one that creates a hostile environment.

February 26, 2014 at 12:00 pm
(13) Susan Heathfield says:

Velma, the average employee has little control over the work environment of their organization. So, yes, if they’ve done what they can – and nothing changes or it gets worse – they should leave and find a workplace where they will be happy. Secretly job search. But, mostly I was defining a hostile environment as it is legally classified as opposed to a bad boss or bad work environment which employees should not put up with either, but wouldn’t be classified as hostile either. Regards, Susan

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